Promise of Talks and Prisoner Release Raises Some Hope in Burundi

Promise of Talks and Prisoner Release Raises Some Hope in Burundi
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza during a meeting, Bujumbura, Burundi, Feb. 23, 2016 (AP photo).

Violence has enveloped Burundi since last April, when protests broke out following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial announcement that he would run for a third term, despite a constitutional two-term limit. On Tuesday, after meeting with Nkurunziza in the capital, Bujumbura, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that Nkurunziza had agreed to hold talks with the opposition. Nkurunziza also said that he would release 2,000 people detained by authorities amid the unrest.

The president’s decision last year to run again was met with outcries from Burundi’s opposition, which called the move unconstitutional. In May, rogue military officers attempted a coup, which the government thwarted. Since then, more than 400 people have been killed in the violence, while a government-enforced media blackout has shuttered nearly all of Burundi’s news outlets. Although Ban praised Nkurunziza’s promise to release prisoners as an “encouraging step,” Burundi’s opposition is less optimistic and doubts the president’s commitment to reconciliation. An opposition politician told Reuters that he suspects that Nkurunziza will likely “only release his own men.”

The government’s crackdown around the July presidential election contributed to instability, prompting an uptick in political violence and a spate of arrests targeting not only opposition members, but journalists and activists. That increasingly perilous climate sparked fears of a regional spillover, given Burundi’s already-tense relations with neighboring Rwanda. Nkurunziza’s government has accused Rwanda of meddling in Burundi and harboring armed rebels who want to oust him. In his statement Tuesday, Nkurunziza called on Ban “to persuade Rwanda to stop its aggression against Burundi.”

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